Rosemary, they say, is for remembrance, and my story is certainly not one I shall easily forget. In truth, it happened to be rosemary but it could have been many other things. I have spent much of my professional life encouraging gardeners to try plants that are a little out of the ordinary, but I am beginning to wonder if the horticultural trade is now working against me.
It all began a few weeks ago when I drove to a garden centre I used to think the best in the country in the hope of finding a few less common rosemary varieties. I wanted to enhance my herb garden with some of the more choice kinds: pink flowered, white flowered, dwarf, trailing, and so on. There was nothing; and as I looked around, the plants in general struck me as being in good condition but pretty unimaginative. The place had become like many garden centres, more of an out-of-town shopping experience.
So, I thought, that’s a topic for my New Statesman readers – encourage folk to patronise nurseries rather than garden centres, to try more interesting plants. Nothing particularly difficult or challenging; just something different and worth growing.
How wrong I was. Back at home and still looking for my rosemaries, I visited the RHS horticultural database website, which enables you to search for suppliers of every kind of plant imaginable.
A search for rosemary produced a list of 23 different varieties, so I started with a long-time favourite: Majorca Pink. Fifteen suppliers were listed that offered mail order. I opted for one that claimed the largest collection of culinary herbs in the UK, most of which, it said, were available as seed or plants. It listed and illustrated even more kinds of rosemary – 28, in fact.
But when I tried to order, I discovered the nursery does not really offer mail order, only collection. I investigated further. Other nurseries did offer delivery, but time after time when I tried to make a purchase, I was faced with messages such as “out of stock” or “no longer available”.
I had drawn a blank with rosemary, so I thought I would look for a rather fine dwarf variety of willow I had seen in a private garden. I found it listed by a nursery in Berwickshire. It was stated to be available so I placed my order, along with a type of hydrangea I had also been seeking.
Two days later, I received an email – my order was cancelled because the nursery had been too busy doing other things to keep the website up to date.
My well-intentioned idea of encouraging gardeners to patronise nurseries was fast evaporating. I believe using out-of-date catalogues, especially online where things can be updated instantly, is frankly inexcusable.
So what next? I finally located a nursery that listed many kinds of rosemary, all said to be available and I chose Majorca Pink (pink!), Repens (creeping), Albiflorus (white), Tuscan Blue (bright blue) and Punta di Canelle (dark blue). The splendid plants were delivered, beautifully packed, in excellent condition and arrived just four days after I placed my order. Including postage they cost me £8 each.
Oh yes, the nursery? It is in south-west France. I shall certainly use it again to the detriment of the UK horticultural trade; although how easy it will be after 31 October does remain to be seen.
Next week: Nina Caplan on drink
This article appears in the 03 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion